If Thou Beest a Moon Calf…More Stories from My Dark Night of the #CCourse Soul

Moon-calf, speak once in thy life, if thou beest a
good moon-calf. (The Tempest: Act 3, Scene 2, 21-22)

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What a moon calf I am!

I am writing about my connecting classroom. I was preparing for class Monday morning and I wrote what at the time seemed both profound and tres Captain Obvious simultaneously.

“Maybe the problem is that we do these ‘activities’ separately and unconnected Maybe we need to do them together.”

No duh much, Terry. The problem I referred to above was an assignment to annotate a video. Let me rewind. Here is what I wanted us to do.

1. Summarize stuff.
2. Summarize stuff because it is a mad skill that needs constant refinement in the academic environment. It is especially needful in a digital flood tide. Summing up is just filtering and crap-detecting 101. Hence, we must do it, a lot.
3. Summarize media of all kinds.
4. Write/text/tweet/voice products of this summarizing activity.

That’s what we want to do. Well…OK, that’s what I in my omniscient infinitude want to do. This is the problem of the connected classroom how can one give up the hiearchy, trusting that the course of things will be taken up in manifold ways and products? But there still has to be some few initial conditions that guide, right. I try to ensure that those conditions are “right”. Summary has a lot of research behind it as a way to learn. My personal and professional experience has shown the need to get competent at doing it. Every job I have ever had has required this of me. In my business experience, my teaching experience, and my personal learning experience, summing up is a core skill.

Ok, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Or my rationale anyway. This assignment required them to take an RSA Animate video by Barbara Ehrenreich about the perils of positive attitude and to comment, respond to, sum up and otherwise annotate. Then they followed with an essay taken from one of Ehrenreich‘s books on roughly the same topic.

What I discovered was that the first ten annotators got it pretty much wrong. They did not sum up what the author’s purpose was. In fact they wrote pretty much the opposite of what Ehrenreich was arguing.

This is where the conventional schema of teaching and learning may have ruined this assignment. In response I doubled down with the scaffolding. I worked in class on actively close reading both the video and the text. We discussed what it means to ‘sum up’. I provided them with a template for introducing a summary paper. I strongly suggested an algorithm for creating a first draft taken from some ‘expert’ texts. I even gave them some crazy options (treat the essay like a “black-out poem”, just black out everything that is not needed and then sum it up from there). I sent them a document that amounted to a summary checklist. I even gave them an “acid test”: if a random reader can “get” what you are summarizing without reading the original, then you have succeeded in your purpose.

And therein lay the rub: in response to the fear and confusion I sensed in my students I became Uncle “Hub Central”. Understanding how to summarize became an external act outside their own minds consisting of checklists, algorithms, and templates designed to connect the dots that I so faithlessly put on the page. But in the end I believe that summing up needs to be an internal algorithm that rises up as a personal exigency, a massing together of sets of neuronal allies, firing and wiring like a mosh pit of nodal “hands” holding up the crowd surfing madman named Summary.


So…I am trapped in my own tar baby, too clever by half. Yet in this excess, perhaps we can still work together as a learning community to see what happened this coming Monday. I can stop being the hub. I can ask them, “Would you mind leading a discussion together about what happened as you wrote your summaries?” No scaffolding of the discussion. No questions from me, just repeating back to them what they have already said. Infuriating? Confusing? Guilty on both counts. Meaning making and perhaps internal connecting? A consummation devoutly to be wished.

I have fallen victim (and continue to fall victim to) one of the classic blunders (well, besides the most famous one which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia”): post hoc ergo propter hoc. The rooster crows, then the sun rises; therefore, if I kill all the roosters the sun won’t rise. It is classic confirmation bias where we think time is the only connecting thread between nodes.

I put on my expert hat and decided that because the students had failed to sum up the video that they didn’t understand how to sum up in general. Were there other explanations? Yes, but fear drove me to the default response–I am responsible for their learning. Hence, the scaffolding. I see this all the time in expert systems. We study a sequence of events. We carefully describe those events as a case study. The event could be a success or a failure. If it is a success, then all we have to do efficiently mimic all the causative steps so expertly dilineated. Or, if a failure, we stay away from those steps. Best practice/worst practice. The problem with this variant of the post hoc fallacy is that we don’t really know if the strategies all arose as a ‘one off’ case, a sample of one, or as a truly generalizeable theory of action. Heraclitus (and his kissing cousin, Chaos Theory) argues that we really can’t step twice in the same river. In other words, initial conditions are always different from case to case in the dreaded ‘real world’. Those initial conditions almost always lead one astray from the desired results. Post hoc thinking is almost always wrong.

In other words we faithfully build the scaffold, gather our tools, climb to the top, and discover that the soffit we want to replace is out of reach. Sigh. Or as Joseph Campbell put it, “There is perhaps nothing worse than reaching the top of the ladder and discovering that you’re on the wrong wall.”

Perhaps I will discover the best case scenario for each of my classes. Perhaps not. Perhaps the success will come in the constant trumpeting of both “baby step” successes as well as “falling and hitting our heads on the coffee table, let’s go to the emergency room” failures. I just need to move my primary default mode from hub to node. They are more responsible for their own learning than I am. I share a duty to them, but the process is messy. We are all moon calves when it comes to learning. Moon calves.